Uphill battle for South Korea’s new education minister

Kim In-Chul has ample experience, but academics warn he faces a polarised political climate and universities’ resistance to change

April 24, 2022
Kim In-chul, nominated by President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol as education minister and deputy prime minister for social affairs as illustrated in the article
Source: Alamy

South Korea’s incoming education minister may struggle to make the sweeping reforms necessary to address critical problems in the country’s higher education sector, observers said.

Kim In-Chul, who is likely to assume the post after president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol takes office next month, served two consecutive terms as president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, where he was a professor. He also headed the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE), which represents four-year universities in the country.

But academics said that Professor Kim would have to contend with strong political forces to push through any meaningful changes to the sector, which is grappling with steeply dropping enrolments.

South Korea is known globally for its strong education, but the topic is also a political hot potato, with candidates for the presidency largely skirting it during their campaigns.

“We can hardly expect dramatic change and innovations in education policies at the moment,” said Suyoun Byoun, a higher education researcher. Dr Byoun doubted that the new government would be “likely to gain enough public support to start new innovations” aimed at reforming the sector, which she described as being in “urgent” need of consolidation.

“It will be challenging for [Professor] Kim to make big changes because education policy is such a politicised issue,” agreed Jae-Eun Jon, an associate professor of education at Hankuk, who noted that already plans to merge the country’s ministries of education and science have been kicked down the road.

Still, Dr Jon was hopeful that the incoming minister could push forward “urgent agendas for higher education”.

Top among these include dropping enrolment due to Korea’s demographic decline, which has already caused the closure of universities and is expected to get worse. Another is addressing Korea’s urban-rural divide, with universities outside Seoul seen as less prestigious and often strapped for resources.

“[Professor] Kim should pursue a goal for boosting regional universities which are related to the economy and industry of cities where they are located. We don’t have much diversity in terms of higher education, with strong hierarchies among HEIs,” said Dr Jon.

Perhaps more controversially, Professor Kim may fight for raising tuition fees, which have remained frozen for nearly 13 years. Dr Jon predicted that institutions would lobby hard to release tuition caps, something the incoming minister has previously supported. Still, she cautioned this may not prove easy.

“This is a bipartisan issue that two big parties all agree on, so [lobbying for an increase] wouldn’t be an easy task,” Dr Jon said.

Currently, the government evaluates universities on numerous indicators to determine its financial support, putting “much burden and pressure on HEIs, taking away resources and energy” from their other activities, said Dr Jon.

The future education minister should also focus on giving universities more leeway to manage themselves, said Hyun Chong Lee, executive director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Hanyang University.   

“His top priorities should be issues of university autonomy and accountability. To pursue these two goals, he must focus on [universities’] sustainable development,” said Professor Lee.

But if Korea’s next education minister is to succeed, his greatest obstacle may be changing the minds of the very institutions under his charge.

“Considering the resistance of HEIs for change, which I think most problematic, the government also needs to stimulate and support their change for the future, when a considerable number of them may disappear,” said Dr Jon.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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